A new televised expose is due to be released shortly focusing a spotlight on the Indiana case of Sarah White. Although the criminal conviction in her case was determined in 1976, the lessons of her continued incarceration pose significant questions for those who care to devote their efforts toward true criminal justice reform.
Far too frequently the term, “out of sight, out of mind,” has served as the best ally for those seeking to sweep the inequities of the criminal justice system under the rug. Self examination is often a painful process for those who have played a part in handing down punishment against another one of our fellow human beings.
The simplistic notion that one convicted of a crime forfeits continued attempts at compassion as to the merits of continued incarceration is one that those countries in the Middle East we deplore would be proud of. Rather, the strength of our unique nation comes not in catering to the vengeance of the masses but in lauding those lawyers within our system of criminal jurisprudence willing to preserve the principals of both justice and mercy.
One such individual who I believe deserves true recognition is criminal defense attorney Charles Asher. Without any fanfare or posturing for media recognition, Asher has devoted years of effort toward ensuring that the case of Sara White not be forgotten. As such, his efforts represent hope that despite those clamoring to foment punitive punishment against those convicted of crimes more in line with that of Iran, there are those courageous Americans still willing to devote themselves to causes that enhance the underpinnings of the US constitution.
Attorney Asher for many years has not allowed for the case of “Cindy” White to be forgotten. White was an orphaned minor child with no one to care for her when she ultimately found herself committed to an Indianapolis mental hospital. Following her release she was ecstatic that a married man by the name of Charles Roberson was desirous of having the recently released teen move into his home as a babysitter to help care for his four children.
While no clear evidence of what went on over time within the Roberson’s Greenwood Indiana home had been conclusively established at trial to uncover the motivation for White’s actions, what was uncontested was that Cindy White lit a Christmas tree on fire that lead to the killing of the Roberson family.
White has asserted consistently that she never intended to harm anyone. Rather, she sought to light the Roberson house on fire as a means by which to draw attention to her abuse and escape the captivity of the home she contends fostered her continued sexual exploitation. White has consistently expressed remorse for the deaths of the children and prayed for forgiveness for her actions.
Whether or not one views Ms. White’s claims to be genuine, Cindy White was convicted of murder and sentenced to multiple life sentences for the killings. Convicted in the Johnson County Superior Court in 1976, Cindy White remains the longest serving female prisoner behind bars within the State of Indiana.
Troubling questions linger when analyzing the White case for those willing to confront the harsh realities of our present criminal justice system.
Most objecting to White’s present circumstances believe that the teenage White should have been swiftly and sufficiently punished for her actions that lead to the death of four innocent children. However, in coming to grips with Ms. White’s continued incarceration many feel it is incumbent to take heed of Attorney Charles Asher’s continued efforts in assessing what our criminal justice system aims to accomplish when meeting out proper punishment toward those found culpable of criminal conduct.
As an outside observer of this case I am troubled by a simplistic aspect of the case not founded in any legal basis. Rather, I was initially drawn to Ms. White’s plight by looking at a haunting picture of a confused teen girl holding her head in the palm of her hand; bewildered and dazed as to the course of events that lead to her spending the rest of her life in an Indiana prison.
More troubling were acknowledged facts brought out within her trial that in the eyes of many buttress her standing for release on humanitarian grounds.
Acknowledged by both prosecutors and police investigators within her trial was the reality that naked picture(s) and letters of the teen babysitter were uncovered within the wallet of Charles Roberson following his death. Cindy White later claimed to have been too embarrassed to put forward allegations within a public trial that she had been sexually abused by Charles Roberson as well as her paternal father. Nonetheless, whether her assertions now have merit or were unfounded, prosecutors were able to frame possession of the naked photograph(s) and letters by the married Roberson as motivation for White to kill Charles Roberson and his family in her alleged capacity as the proverbial scorned lover.
Despite many legal pundits who in good conscience see the merits in White’s efforts to gain her release from prison, the Indiana Court of Appeals has been unsympathetic to her pleas. Despite numerous efforts over many years to put forth varied legal arguments to win Ms. White’s release, some would suggest that a 1999 ruling by the Court of Appeals in Indiana has served to rationalize the court’s unwillingness to demonstrate needed courage on the issue.
Sidestepping focus within its ruling on the merits of Ms. White’s release, the Court of Appeals enunciated its decision on the premise that although the Indiana State Legislature allowed for paroled release of similarly situated individuals convicted of multiple life sentences as of 1977, it did not allow for such paroled release a year earlier when Cindy White had been convicted of her crimes.
As a result, the court passed the buck to the Indiana governorship by suggesting that clemency by a sitting Indiana governor would be the only legal recourse by which Ms. White would be able to secure a release.
In other words, the reality that no sitting political official in the governorship would ever grant such clemency served as what may be a final blow to Ms. White’s attempts to be released from a life sentence.
Cases that strengthen the foundation of our democracy are never the easy ones, but the difficult rulings that require the courage of jurists to confront the most vengeful of human emotions. Elected and appointed judges within each state are empowered to lead our society in a way that preserves the founding fathers ideals for the next generation of Americans in how the US constitution is to be implemented.
When jurists fail to demonstrate such courage, the moral underpinnings of our criminal justice system erode, rendering the notion of “rehabilitation” as a desired goal of punitive punishment less than credible.
Although White and others like her remain to languish in prison, it is heartening to know that attorneys such as Charles Asher are willing to continue the battle for legal reform where political officials and sitting judges remain unwilling to act.
Allow me to suggest that our citizenry recognize the invaluable contributions lawyers such as Mr. Asher make toward the pursuit of this ongoing quest for true legal reform and justice for all Americans.